Word Court



wordct2 picture

I have always understood the verb include to refer to a number of items that make up a portion of a larger whole, as in "The alphabet contains twenty-six letters, including A, B, and Z." I constantly hear and read it used in a contrary sense, as designating a complete listing of the items that make up a whole, as in "The alphabet contains twenty-six letters, including A through Z." This drives me crazy. Am I fighting a losing battle? Can I include you in my list of allies?

Ian Burrow

I'm with you. And yet we mustn't carry this too far: "His friends include some absolute lunatics, and some perfectly nice people, too," for example, is not incorrect, nor does it necessarily imply that the fellow has still other friends, who don't fall into either category. The word can be legitimately used in a way that leaves what is or isn't included a bit vague.



Here's a question that has been bothering me for several years: What is the name of the next decade? The aughts? The zeds? Why hasn't this issue been resolved by the popular media? What was the first decade of the 1900s called?

Wes Howard-Brook


wordct1 pictureHistorians and linguistic scholars have an assortment of opinions about what the first decade of the present century was called: it went by the nineteen hundreds, the aughty-aughts, or simply the new decade and other non-names, various personages have assured me. The twenty hundreds? The aughty-aughts? Those precedents don't help us now. Many new coinages have been put forward over the past decade or so, among them the zilches, the uh-ohs, the naughties, and the pre-teens. The three proposals that people seem inclined to take seriously, though, are the ohs, the double 0s, (pronounced "ohs"), and the aughts.

Certain arms of the media have been trying to resolve the issue: The New York Times, for example, has to date published two editorials in favor of the ohs. But this isn't something that can be resolved by any given authority. English is wonderfully democratic: words and phrases enter the standard vocabulary because large numbers of people like them and find them useful. In this case we may well fail to settle on one choice, and a hundred years from now historians and linguistic scholars will have an assortment of opinions about what we called the first decade of the new millennium. Maybe precedent is telling us something after all.



My grandmother used to illustrate the difference between will and shall with the following two sentences: "I shall drown; no one will save me" and "I will drown; no one shall save me." One sentence denotes intention; the other denotes desperation. But which is which?

Stephanie Oddleifson

You're not the only one who's confused by shall and will . A few months ago, attempting to hammer out a budget bill, Senator Bob Dole and Senator Tom Daschle were at a loss for the proper wording. "Holding a dictionary between them and pouring [sic] through its pages," The New York Times reported, "the two leaders agreed that the words were synonymous. They agreed on shall ."


wordct3 picture I wish they'd called me. The traditional distinction made in England is that in the first person will has to do with willpower--that is, it denotes intentionality--and shall with simple futurity, whereas the second and third persons reverse the pattern. Thus your two sentences mean, respectively, "I am going to drown, and no one is going to save me" and "I mean to drown, and no one had better save me." (In fact, the latter of your sentences is the punch line of an antique joke about a Scotsman whom well-brought-up English folk mistakenly allowed to drown, because--well, you get the idea.)

There are, however, many traditional exceptions to the traditional rule, and even the Fowler brothers--admirable watchdogs of traditional English English--were forced to admit, in their The King's English (1906), that the idiomatic use of the two words, "while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen, . . . is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it."

In the United States today, most authorities agree, will does the better part of the jobs that it once took the two words to do, and what will doesn't do is generally taken care of in other ways, such as by is going to or the cleverly vague 'll. Except in set phrases like "Shall we dance?" and "We shall overcome," shall now strikes most Americans as an affectation. When you're in doubt, therefore, use will . Bob Dole and Tom Daschle notwithstanding, it's the all-American choice.



Illustrations by Tim Carroll



The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1996; Word Court; Volume 277, No. 3; page 128.



Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In